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Sunday, August 31, 2008

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The world too much with us:
break out the sprinkles.


Last Sunday, my second-grader came in the door crying. He and his big brother were tearing across the yard, when he tripped over a tree root and fell, most unhumorously, on his funny bone. I ran his arm through a series of highly scientific wiggle tests, and applied an ice pack, but when he was still crying after twenty minutes, and unmoved by his big brother's entreaties every five minutes to "come see this!," I decided a trip to the emergency room was in order. It wasn't like him to stay down for so long. Maybe he had a hairline fracture.

This is my stealth child. Where the other two are open books set in big print, my middle son is not so easily read. "A mystery, wrapped in an enigma," Patrick used to say about me when we were first getting to know each other. And while this is the child who most nearly resembles his father physically, he takes after his mother on the inside.

"You have many rooms in your house, Kyran," my Mom observed about my interior life once. "And not all of them are open." Her tone was wistful. And now, as the mother of a child who frequently hangs the "do not disturb" sign over the knob, I understand how difficult it must have been for her sometimes to live with a daughter who could disappear from her without ever leaving the dinner table.

What probably took my open-hearted, emotionally resilient mom years to understand, and what I get innately about my son, is that his ability to draw so completely into himself is one borne of self-preservation.

He is extremely sensitive to all input, sensory or otherwise. Sounds are louder, tastes are stronger, smells are smellier, feelings are, well, feelier. Everything is more. I hear stories all the time about other kids like this who have a lot of problems mangaging daily life, and whose parents have a terrible time right alongside them. Something I love and admire about my son is how well he takes care of himself in a world that is sometimes too much. He has learned how to take his space when it presses in too closely on him, even when he can't physically wander away.

I don't take credit for this, any more than I do for any of my children's gifts. The greatest blessing of having more than one child is how swiftly it corrected my over-inflated measure of my own influence on their personalities. But I do think it has helped my ultra-sensitive child that I have always validated his experience, and trusted his instinctual ways of processing it. I don't fight him on food issues, for example. If it "tastes funny," it tastes funny. He has somehow grown into an average size, if fine-boned, seven-year-old on a diet that is 85 per cent beige.

Once when he was a toddler, I heard cries from the bath as he was getting his hair washed, and ran up to investigate.

"It's too hot," he was crying, as Patrick was rinsing.

Patrick was bewildered. "Feel this," he said. "It's not hot."

"It is to him," I said, turning the faucet.

I guess some old-school types might call this coddling. I call it respect.

I can't change who my son is, or how he takes life in. I can validate his feelings, offer perspective, and try to teach outer-world skills that don't come easily or naturally to someone who lives from a place so deep inside.

Sitting in the hospital examination room, waiting for an x-ray order, afforded us some rare one-on-one time. I struggled to keep something like a conversation going, never a problem with my two chatterbox children. I asked him about his arm, and where he was running in such a hurry, and how school was going. While he was setting off eagerly each morning, I knew it was taking him a little longer to find his place than it did his brothers.

His answers were typically brief and non-committal. He was bending and flexing his arm freely, but I still read pain on his face.

"Honey, you look so sad," I said finally. "Are you sad?"

He shrugged. "Not really, I guess."

Just like the kids have learned that Mommy's "maybe" means "probably", and Daddy's "maybe" means "unlikely", I have learned that my son's "I guess" means "you guess."

"Are your feelings hurt about something?"


"Are you missing something or somebody?"

"I guess."

It didn't take a full round of twenty questions to find out that he was grieving for his best buddy from his old school. The boys have seen each other over the summer, but a new classroom, a new playground and a new lunch table really brought it home how things have changed.

My guy cried quietly into some tissue as I stroked his hair and tried to tell him what I know about friendship and life changes, which is that sometimes it's really hard, and you cry.

The elbow was completely healed. I was never so grateful to have wasted an hour on a Sunday afternoon in E.R. Who knows how long my child would have held that grief inside?

Me, me. I do.

A very long time.

I know so well the muteness that strikes as the immensity of Everything bears down. I know the secret hiding places where you can curl into yourself so compactly, no one can pry you out. As Patrick and my mother have learned with me, as I know with my son, nothing is ever won by force from either of us. But there's a sweet spot somewhere between backing off and standing by, where we come out into the open.

Sometimes I meet my son there.

I put my arm around him while he wept. I promised we'd call his buddy when we got home, and that I not only understood his feeling sad, I wouldn't be one bit surprised if he felt mad at us for making him change schools.

I felt him uncurl. He twisted a damp piece of tissue in his hands.

"Better?" I said.

"Yeah, but there's just one more thing."

When a child like my child is about to give you something of himself, of his own accord, you sit very still and you breathe very carefully.

"What, honey?"

"I wanted to buy the house we looked at that had the playroom."

Oh, the things we hold onto, the lengths we hold on. His mother's son for sure.

There's so much I can't teach him, because I'm still learning it myself. Trusting the people closest to me with my true feelings; admitting when I am disappointed, angry, or hurt; not leaving people to guess what's going on with me when I withdraw. Not having to steal space in secret, but to simply take it, honestly and openly, when it's what I need (and lately, I find I need more of it than ever before). To have faith that some relationships can survive big changes.

All I know is to offer him the things I want most for myself from the people I love and who love me: acceptance for who he is, faith in who he is becoming.

And great big bowls of ice cream.


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Thursday, August 28, 2008

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First things first

"When I cannot write a poem, I bake biscuits and feel just as pleased."

— Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I came across this quote the other day, and it sounded so nice and enlightened and ladylike, I was ready to cross-stitch it onto tea towels, except I realized it would take me fifteen years to do that, and also, that it's not really true. Not for me.

God knows, I appreciate all that goes into a batch of flaky biscuits, but I can't honestly say it's anything like watching a cloud of ideas begin to swirl and spark and find form—black words on a white page, stars appearing in the firmament. Every time, it's like the first time.

Not even the most perfectly risen, exquisitely golden, piping hot biscuit can do that for me.

That's not to say it can't or shouldn't for someone else. Cooking and baking are also about making something new, and can be deeply creative. I appreciate that especially at this time of year when I find myself naturally drawn to the kitchen. As autumn approaches, our table sees less takeout and more pot roasts and whole chickens. The bread machine and the crock pot come out. I get a gambler's kick out of seeing how many meals I can tease out of Sunday leftovers, or what I can concoct from a depleted and eccentric pantry without having to run to the grocery store.

The pleasure is heightened by the satisfaction of feeling thrifty. Rising gas and grocery prices really dented our checking account over the summer, and we have pulled the fiscal belt in a notch. I don't mind so much, though it's meant passing the floral display at the supermarket with a wistful sigh the past several weeks. But our big picture is looking good, and after last year, "tight" is a relative term.

There's a world of difference between our situation now and then, but one thing I've really noticed is that we have lots more company. I can't say it makes me happy that legions more families are feeling pinched, but it's certainly less lonely out here on the edge than it was a year ago. And I don't like that people are stressed and worried for the future the way we were, but I do like how the present economy is fostering a culture of resourcefulness and mindfulness about consumption.

It's becoming socially acceptable among a widening circle of people to raise chickens, clip coupons, drive a smaller car, stay home for vacation, grow vegetables, share leftovers, talk about money. There's a lot of creativity going into the problem of how to extract more from less, and there needs to be.

But you know, we're a nation of extremes, which is probably why I feel so at home here. Frugality can become its own kind of obsession and diversion in the same way consumerism can. Case in point, my coupon clipping. I think I've finally found the middle path, thanks to an online service that highlights optimal savings for me, but for a few years, I would spend hours a week on coupons. I got a hunter-gatherers' adreneline surge from seeing that I'd saved forty or fifty bucks on groceries. But broken down into an hourly wage, it really wasn't much. And it was keeping me from things that I am good at, that pay better, that make me happy, that I believe were given to me to do when I picked up my orientation packet at the door.

My major in life happens to be writing. But it could have just as easily been baking or homemaking. Just because one of those things is my thing, doesn't mean I think it's more valuable than the others. It's a question of being aware of where your gifts lie, and making sure the bulk of your effort serves the answer.

Just like I have trouble believing that some people are just called to spend their whole lives shopping and spending, it concerns me when frugality becomes the master and not the servant of a person's true purpose in life. If clipping coupons and riding bikes and growing lettuce free up more of your energy and time to be that person you are called to be, great. But the diversification of society was a good thing, and I think, in our zeal, it is easy to romanticize a time when everyone, everyday, was consumed with the problem of merely getting by. The day when technology allowed some of us to leave the farm and become writers, doctors, plumbers, sculptors, priests, teachers, inventors was a good day. Because face it, some of us are really bad at remembering to water the lettuce.

I meant all day yesterday to sit down and write. I've learned that the more days go by, the harder it gets. Creative flow and stoppage works just like your bowels. Defer at your peril.

I was finding it hard to focus all morning, so I did the things that always ground me: made the beds, emptied the dishwasher, walked the dog (there is nothing like holding a bag of poop for three blocks to bring you quickly down to planet earth). I should have sat down at the keyboard then, but I decided to tidy and vaccum. Then it was time to get the boys. Then I got caught up in the kitchen. I was making a meal of roast beef sandwiches with homemade broth, and I found a box of cake mix on the top pantry shelf, so I decided to make cupcakes for dessert. By suppertime, I was snapping at Patrick and the kids.

I've learned by now to ask myself what I'm angry about when I start snapping. It wasn't hard to arrive at the answer: I'd spent all afternoon cleaning house and making dinner and cupcakes, instead of what I really needed to do. I think it was the cupcakes that put me over the edge.

All that stuff is the stuff of survival, or some elaboration on it. We've got to eat, we've got to keep up our nest, we've got to get by. It has to be done. And you know what? It needed to be done again this morning. It never goes away. We can spend our whole lives surviving, and never rise above it. Too many people don't have a choice about where to allocate their energy. For them, finding food, money, fuel and shelter is a necessary pre-occupation, every day, all day. But some of us elevate survival to vocation.

The snap test is such a great indicator of balance for me. When I start snapping, I know I've betrayed my purpose, my time, and my imagination.

I am so lucky to have the ability to choose, skinny wallet and all. I understand that our lifestyle, which we consider to be one of certain sacrifices, is one of unimagined luxury in parts of the world and our own city. This morning I was able to send my kids to school, clothes on their backs, lunch bags in hand. I was able to come back to my house instead of going out to work somewhere. I threw a load of laundry in the washer, made my bed, poured some coffee.

The dishwasher needed to be emptied. Again. I looked at it. First things first.

I came straight here, and I promised myself a cupcake afterwards.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

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Rag-Tag Band

Old school...


New school...


Everyone is into the second week of public school. So far, so good. No disrespect to the old school, which we were all crazy about, but I just love that I can send them off looking like kids, not missionaries.

Our cable modem was down from last Thursday to Monday night, and my thumbs are cramped from having to use my BlackBerry for all things internet-y. But it's back, and so am I. Using all ten fingers to post something later today.


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Thursday, August 21, 2008

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If God Had a Face


"Who made these mountains?"

"God." (plate tectonics—same thing)

"No, he didn't!"

"Sure he (she, it) did. God made the whole world."

(chuckle) "God didn't!"

"Who, then?"

"I did!"

"It's beautiful. Thank you."

"I made it when I was three years old. Don't you remember?"

"I do now."

"I made the mountains and the trees and the bushes and the rocks and the houses and the fences and the whole world. When I was three."


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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

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And this shall be a sign unto you...

...that I've been writing on deadline this week: all our meals have been consumed from the finest plastic tubs.

And by this ye shall know...


...deadline met.

I just turned in a 2,600 word article. In the past week, I've written an introduction for somebody's book, a synopsis for my own possible book, a marketing presentation for a website, some guest posts, and a whole bunch of other stuff I don't even remember. Put a quarter in my mouth and a thousand words, double-spaced, come out.

And I've been home without kids since school started on Monday. Apparently, nature really does abhor a vacuum.


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Sunday, August 17, 2008

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The last splash.

the last splash.

The new backpacks are hung on the mud room hooks where towels and wet swimsuits dripped and dried for months. In between washing clothes and packing lunches, I wedged open an hour for the boys and me to take the last swim of summer vacation.

Turning myself and them toward everything that insists we move on, I stopped for one, long look back, and knew that none of us will ever forget this summer.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

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Did I ever tell you that Patrick and I met for the first time (in person) in Toronto? Our first kiss took place just around the corner from the Shoe Museum. A Museum of Shoes. Two reasons right there for Toronto to earn a special place in my heart for perpetuity.

Meeting Catherine, a.k.a., Her Bad Mother, this summer gave me a third. I am guest posting about my cultural identity crisis over at her place today. Join us. We will feast on timbits and tasty, tasty socialized medicine. There may even be poutine. And no, that is not the french Canadian word for flatulence.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

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Spilling Over

burning bush

By way of a coda to my recent post on fear of aging, I happened to catch that American Express commercial with designer Diane Von Furstenberg last night, and thought to myself, now there is a vision of mature beauty. I went googling around to see what she might be like on the inside, and found this interview.

Scanning down the page, my eyes lit on this:
At 40, you can no longer just count on your beauty or on your seduction power…it is time to become a myth...meaning, stand for something...

A friend of mine who is writing a book on life stages says that aging is the shift to a state that transcends personal ego, in which you come to "belong to the ages."

To me, the above photo says the same thing. I'm drawn to self-portraiture for all the reasons I love writing memoir. It's an attempt at clarity, an opportunity to stand apart and see where I really am. When I made this photo earlier this summer, I couldn't put into words what was going on with me; I don't think I knew, and honestly, I'm not sure I can articulate it now. But this image captures it. I'll spare you the all the lazy, florid metaphors about flowering womanhood and blazing emotion. Suffice it to say my focus is shifting, the way I see myself is changing, and a 38-year-old body turns out to be an inadequate container for all that life keeps pouring into it.

I think it's a picture of my life beginning to spill over.

When I decided to run toward, instead of away, from my writing, I set out purposefully to find examples of writers (and other artists) who ran counter to the negative stereotypes of a life in the arts. Once I started looking, they were everywhere. We become what we believe.

So I'm building a new belief about what it means to age, training my eye to pass over the negative stereotypes and focus on the people who defy them, inside and out.

I've always loved collage for that kind of re-imagining: going through a stack of magazines with a pair of scissors or sometimes just tearing pages with my hands, literally deconstructing the visual creed of popular culture and reassembling it. It's a trick I learned from the Artist's Way, and it packs some mighty mojo.

If I had an afternoon and a stack of magazines, I'd collage myself a new map for growing older and prop it up on my dresser. I don't have that luxury at the moment or anywhere in the near future. I've got three boys to outfit for school on Monday, and some big writing deadlines looming. I shouldn't even be here in my "create post" window.

But I've been holding that little scrap of wisdom from Von Furstenberg since last night, and I had to glue it down somewhere. That photo and my friend's observation seem to go with it. Help me out with the rest. Bring your own quote, image, person, song or story that represents an alternate vision of growing older—growing more— and glue it down it the comments section. It doesn't have to make sense, it only needs to speak to you. Let's re-imagine this thing together.


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Sunday, August 10, 2008

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The journey of a thousand push-ups starts with a list.


I haven't paid the slightest attention to the Olympic games in years. Maybe since the Sarajevo games when I was fourteen. I've blamed it largely on the shift to biannual intervals, or an ex-pat's ambivalence over nationalism. Something's been missing for me. It's felt diluted.

Well, it turns out that adulthood was the only thinning agent, because nothing can re-ignite a long extinguished Olympic spirit like a nine-year-old boy who is on fire with it.

Since the opening ceremonies on Friday night, we have all been caught up in the excitement of the games. Some of us a little more fervently than others:



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Thursday, August 07, 2008

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The summer has bolted like a neglected garden. Early this morning, while the temperature was still in the double digits, I walked around the yard to assess just how far everything has gotten away from us. Trumpet vine has taken over the dog fence. The fig tree is turning yellow, and the birds are beating me to the ripened fruit I thought I would be devouring by now. The dogwoods and forsythia are wizened with thirst, beggars in my path.

The children are wild. If I am lucky, I catch glimpses of them through the hedges, running half-naked with handfuls of hard green pecans and tall pointed sticks (yes, there have been injuries). Everywhere, there are hidden caches of sticks, rocks and nuts. Provision or ammunition, I can't tell.

I have let it all go, myself included, and it has been the most luscious, rambling summer I remember in years. Non, je ne regrette rien.

But it's time. Time to pull back the lovely tangle of vines before they choke the life out of something, time to beg forgiveness from the dogwoods and forsythia so they will love me again in the spring, time to brood even one fig into full sweetness. It's time to give Peter his thimble and gather in my lost boys.

"Should we cut your hair before school?" I asked them yesterday. They were adamant and unanimous to a man. "No."

They are going to public school in two weeks, and are delighted to be emancipated from the "hair code" of their old parochial school. Me too. I like a touch of wild.

I am going to have to insist on shirts, however.

There's a Tom Petty song that Patrick used to sing to me over the telephone, late lonely nights under the gabled ceiling of my childhood bedroom in my mother's house, while I tried to figure out what kind of garden I wanted to grow, the best ratio of order to chaos for my life:

Run away, find you a lover
Go away somewhere bright and new
I have seen no other
Who compares with you
You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
You belong with your love on your arm
You belong somewhere you feel free

I did. I do.

Here are my wildflowers. I told them I wanted pictures of their freckles.




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Monday, August 04, 2008

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The Promise

I stood in the dark parking lot, letting what I'd just heard sink in. Patrick was twenty feet away, saying goodnight to one of the people we'd just come from dinner with, white ash drifting from the end of his cigarette as he gestured. I looked at my girlfriend.

"My god," I said. "How awful."

She nodded. "I've heard he's already moved out and is living with the new woman."


We kept our voices low, more out of solemnity than secrecy. If we were ten or fifteen years younger, such news would have been gossip. Pretty young things can go whistling past the graveyards of other women's marriages. At 38 and 40, we all but crossed ourselves.

My friend is a close enough friend that I don't have to pretend enlightenment when I'm not feeling it. "It's so unfair," I said. "Our time runs out, and theirs doesn't." For a rare instant, I missed having my own cigarette to blow smoke in the face of mortality. But I quit years ago for all the obvious reasons, not the least of which was how smoking ravages a woman's skin. Of all the arguments I've used to try to persuade Patrick to kick his nicotine addiction, that's one I've never bothered with. The lines around his eyes only seem to make the green of his irises all the more piercing. What makes women look haggard makes men look rugged. Bastards.

"Sometimes I feel like I should run out and have an affair just because," I said wryly. "Because what if I want to later and I can't, because nobody wants me? I mean, what if it turns out we squandered all of our youth on men who go and leave us later for younger women?"

My friend laughed. "I feel exactly the same."

We were being funny with each other, but relaying the conversation to Patrick on the ride home in the car, I lost my bluster. My voice was thick liquid, pooling in the back of my throat.

"You don't understand," I choked out. "You don't know how it feels." I was beginning to cry. I felt doubly vulnerable, because I am supposed to know better. I am supposed to know that beauty is skin deep, that youth is wasted on the young, that age is a state of mind, that the best is yet to come, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. What kind of a shallow twit does it make me to admit I am afraid of not recognizing myself in the mirror someday, of becoming invisible in a society where appearance is social currency, of wearing out a way of being in the world that's been so familiar and easy for so many years?

He let me carry on in the key of "you don't" for about half the drive. Then he spoke, in the low and quiet tone he uses only when he really needs me to shut up and hear something. It is only good for a finite number of uses, so he saves it for the big things.

I never want my husband to hesitate on the verge of such a moment, wondering how it will play out in the blog or in print later. So I'm not going to repeat what he said to me here, or anywhere. But he told me to listen, and to listen good, so I did, while he turned all my "you don'ts" back into "I Do".

I almost forgive him for wrinkling well. Bastard.


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